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SHOW BUSINESS: Brando and Brando X

4 minute read
Richard Schickel

You know an autobiography is in trouble when its best chapter — funny, intimate, emotionally engaged — is about the pet raccoon the author loved and lost decades ago. You know a biography is in trouble when sentences like this start popping up: “From the comfort of his foreplay to his gentle whispers, he gave something that was almost at one with female consciousness.” Could we see a footnote on that?

Contemplating his own life in Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me (Random House; 568 pages; $25), Marlon Brando, aided by journalist Robert Lindsey, strikes a pose of injured innocence: he is a sweet-spirited, mischievous man- child who accidentally fell first into acting, then into fame and finally into self-contempt, and at 70 remains “an enigma to myself in a world that still bewilders me.” That observation pretty well sums up the level of self- awareness (and self-revelation) he achieves in his book.

Contemplating the same life from the outside, Peter Manso, author of Brando (Hyperion; 1,140 pages; $29.95), plays the indefatigable investigative reporter. He spent seven years interviewing something like 1,000 people, and he has, it would seem, never met a woman Brando failed to bed or a man he failed finally to betray. His sense of propriety is typified by his willingness to trail Brando’s daughter Cheyenne as she leaves her psychiatric clinic, corner her on a park bench and record without qualification her accusations about her father’s role in the murder of her lover in 1990. Driven to possess another man’s life, Manso becomes the literary version of one of the late 20th century’s scariest specimens, the celebrity stalker.

Neither author is capable of approaching their common subject in a way that is morally, culturally or aesthetically enlightening. Manso doesn’t even try to evaluate Brando’s work or place it in context, relying on old newspaper clippings instead. Like everyone, Brando is a poor judge of his own accomplishments — he thinks he gave his best performance in Burn! Without a perceptive discussion of Brando the artist, the two books are left only with Brando the celebrity. But that celebrity has long since detached itself from the qualities that made Brando worthy of fame in the first place. It floats free over a landscape littered with tabloid trash, and few remember what he once meant to the very different culture of the 1950s.

But ah, his friends, and oh, his foes, he gave a lovely light! In works like A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, Brando mobilized a raw and unprecedented behavioral truthfulness; heedlessly, he challenged the blandness and piety of the times. If you were young with pretensions to hipness, he seemed to speak your thoughts. And he drove the old Eisenhower crowd nuts. But what we read then as rebelliousness was really confusion. Brando had a stern, cold father and a dream-disheveled mother — both alcoholics, both sexually promiscuous — and he encompassed both their natures without resolving the conflict. Elia Kazan, the director who did the most to shape Brando’s work, once said, “He’s uncertain of himself and he’s passionate, both at the same time.”

There is enough undeveloped material in these two volumes to support a dozen speculations about why Brando eventually lost his way (finding it again only briefly in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris). Maybe his genius made his work too undemanding for him, causing him to despise the ease with which he could achieve effects everyone around him struggled for. Maybe, on the other hand, his brilliance was a burden, tempting him toward dark psychological realms he didn’t want to explore.

Possibly the theatrical idealism he absorbed from his beloved first teacher, Stella Adler, and her Stanislavskian circle served him well and ill. It gave a purposeless young man a guiding passion, but it also gave him principles that could not survive the hurly-burly of show business as usual (especially after Hollywood stopped making the realistic films that suited his gift and cast him adrift in CinemaScope spectacles). Maybe as a high school dropout and autodidact he simply didn’t have the equipment to play the one role he came to yearn for, the tortured, socially committed intellectual.

Neither autobiography nor biography brings us close to the heart of this darkness. The former is like one of Brando’s late cameo roles; he mimes the gestures of authenticity as he grabs the money (a reputed $3.5 million advance) and heads for the door. The latter, mindlessly grubbing through a celebrity’s garbage can, illuminates only the seeker’s own sordid sensibility.

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